MLS 2012 Season Preview: Western Conference

Colorado Rapids

Biggest Gain: Midfielder Jaime Castrillón, another MLS Colombian who is looking to make an impact in goal scoring and offensive attacking.

Biggest Loss: Midfielder Sanna Nyassi, scored five goals in 26 appearances for the Rapids, was lost in the expansion draft to Montreal.

Summary: The 2010 MLS Cup Champions struggled to keep pace last season in the Western Conference and was ousted in the Conference Semifinals to Kansas City. Apparently this caused for a change from Head Coach Garry Smith and President Jeff Plush; the new coach is long-time FC Dallas assistant Óscar Pareja. Colorado has a veteran squad with the likes of Jeff Larentowicz, Kosuke Kimura, Omar Cummings, and Conner Casey, but like last year the problems will be depth and health for the Rapids. If Pareja wants to integrate a new flashy offensive style at Colorado, they are going to have to remain healthy all season and pick up some younger talent in transfers. Otherwise, the long MLS season in 2012 could wear on the squad until they have nothing left in the tank come fall.

Game to Watch: vs Portland 9/5 NBC Sports- Colorado will host the up-and-coming Timbers squad in a late-season contest.

San Jose Earthquakes

Biggest Gain: Midfielder Marvin Chávez, made 31 appearances with FC Dallas, and was a key part in their successful season.

Biggest Loss: Midfielder/Defender Bobby Convey, the Earthquakes could not afford to keep Convey and controversy with head coach Frank Yallop forced the organization to end the relationship.

Summary: After an incredible 2010 season that ended in a playoff run to the Conference Finals , San Jose struggled to repeat their exciting form in 2011. Largely due to injuries and an unstable locker room, the squad was never able to come together and win games. Chris Wondolowski was the only bright spot of the 2011 season, where he scored 16 goals and will look to repeat that level in 2012.The offseason saw San Jose make a flurry of moves to rejuvenate their midfield and backfield, but if the Earthquake are unable to resurrect their form of 2010, it could mean an early exit for boss Frank Yallop.

Game to Watch: vs LA Galaxy 6/30 ESPN2- A late June clash with California rival Los Angles will prove how far along the Earthquakes are in rebuilding.

LA Galaxy

Biggest Gain: Forward Edson Buddle, former World Cup goal-scorer and Galaxy standout returns for his second stint in LA. He will add to the stacked attack that the defending champions posses.

Biggest Loss: Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, possessed the highest save percentage in the MLS last season.

Summary: What more is there to say about LA? Becks and Juninho return, Donovan in great form–one couldn’t find a better starting midfield in the league. Yet questions loom on the defense of end; without Omar Gonzalez (lost for the season from an ACL tear), the LA backfield will lack that dominating force that helped win the Cup last November. Even still, finding a legitimate weakness in the Galaxy is like finding a crack in a concrete wall. It will take a special team and special circumstances to stop the LA Galaxy from repeating as MLS Cup Champions in 2012.

Game to Watch: at Portland Timbers 7/14 NBC Sports- Traveling to the intimidating JELD-WEN Field will be quite a spectacle as two of the West’s best teams battle.

Portland Timbers

Biggest Gain: Forward Kris Boyd, the Scottish Legend will now play in the Rose City under Scot John Spencer. And at age 28, Boyd will still have the ability and stamina to play a full MLS schedule.

Biggest Loss: Forward Kenny Cooper, although Cooper was brilliant at the start of 2011, he was unable to stay hot throughout the grueling MLS season.

Summary: Portland had a busy offseason, bolstering their squad from a year ago adding depth and more scoring ability. The Timbers struggled to keep leads in their first year as an MLS franchise, by adding Columbian Hanyer Mosquera, the defense should have more depth and skill to provide support for their exciting offense. In their first year Portland took the league by storm from their insane home support, and in 2012 they look to be known for winning as well as their fan base. With new additions and depth, John Spencer has his team primed and ready for the club’s playoff debut and more.

Game to Watch: vs Seattle 6/24 ESPN- Last seasons I-5 Derby matches were something this country has ever seen. This is the first of three in the 2012 season, expect the best from both squads and both supporters sections.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Biggest Gain: Forward Sébastien Le Toux comes to Canada after a brilliant 2011 season scoring 12 goals for the Union. Le Toux is the big-name and big-experience player to bring Vancouver to a competitive level in 2012.

Biggest Loss: Defender Jeb Brovsky, who was picked up by Montreal in the expansion draft.

Summary: Unlike their Northwest counterparts in Portland, Vancouver found it to be a difficult transition into the MLS. Vancouver only won six games and did not beat rivals Seattle or Portland, but in their new home at BC Place the Whitecaps closed the season going 2-2 ending on a positive note. The offseason was a busy one for Vancouver with the addition of Le Toux, midfielder Barry Robson, Defender Lee Young-Pyo, and number two draft pick Darren Mattocks. With added skill, depth, and a year of experience, 2012 will look very different from the expansion club’s inaugural season.

Game to Watch: vs Seattle 9/29 TSN- The Whitecaps will host Northwest rival in a late-season matchup that could decide playoff positions for both teams.

Real Salt Lake

Biggest Gain: Defender Terukazu Tanaka, the Japanese export will bring depth to a strong Real defense.

Biggest Loss: Midfielder Collen Warner, who was picked up by Montreal in the expansion draft.

Summary: Real Salt Lake had a special start to the 2011 season by making it to the CONCACAF Champions League Final which they eventually lost to Monterrey. Real Salt Lake was plagued by injury last year including Javier Morales, who will look to return in full form this season. Salt Lake still has one of the smartest and experienced squads in the league, if they can stay healthy and continue to play their brand of soccer, 2012 could be a year full of hardware.

Game to Watch: vs Portland 9/22 NBC Sports- Real Salt Lake and Portland are two teams that will be vying for playoff spots, this late September meeting could mean do or die for the two clubs.

FC Dallas

Biggest Gain: Forward Blas Pérez, an experienced striker who has played in Mexico for many years will help superstar Brek Shea carry the load offensively.

Biggest Loss: Midfielder Jackson Gonçalves, the utility player was sent on loan to Cruzeiro.

Summary: FC Dallas had another bright year in 2011, and was able to make the playoffs even through the loss of 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira. Dallas has shifted the squad lineups adding more depth offensively to support their strong midfield lead by Shea and Ferreira. If Dallas stays healthy and can keep the chemistry of Shea and Ferreira in good form there could be a potential MLS Cup run in store.

Game to Watch: @Houston 6/16 ESPN- Houston will be opening their new stadium as Dallas looks to take down their Texas rivals.

Chivas USA

Biggest Gain: Midfielder Oswaldo Minda spent the last three years in Serie A, his move to Chivas will give them midfield composure and defensive security.

Biggest Loss: Midfielder Paulo Nagamura, traded to Sporting Kansas City for Ryan Smith and make room for Minda.

Summary: Chivas made plenty of moves to bolster their squad centered around froward Juan Pablo Ángel, who will enter his first full season wearing the red and white. Chivas focused on their defense by adding players like Seattle’s James Riley who will provide leadership in the backfield. It seems Chivas is the right fit for Juan Pablo Ángel, and after an offseason building up support, the “Clippers of the MLS” are starting to raise eyebrows and could make a run for a playoff spot in 2012.

Game to Watch: vs LA Galaxy 5/19 ESPN2: The SuperClasico was won both times by the Galaxy last season in a 1-0 scoreline. Chivas will look to be on the other side of the score line in 2012.

Seattle Sounders

Biggest Gain: Goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, after legend Kasey Keller’s retirement the Sounders quickly signed the Austrian keeper who has experience playing in Europe and should be a a solid replacement in net.

Biggest Loss: Forwards Lamar Neagle/Mike Fucito, the late trade for forward Eddie Johnson cost the Sounders the two young fan favorites. Only time will tell to decide if the move was the best one for Seattle.

Summary: The Sounders had great year in 2011 winning their third straight US Open Cup and leading the MLS in goal-scoring, yet it ended in a disappointing early exit in the playoffs. The Sounders have all the right pieces to win an MLS Cup: amazing home field advantage, great coaching from Zigi Schmit, a superstar goal-scorer in Fredy Montero, and a slew of brilliant playmakers. If Seattle can have everything come together, they have a shot to win the 2012 MLS Cup. But they will need to get over their curse in the playoffs and a certain team from LA.

Game to Watch: vs Timbers 10/7 ESPN: The Sounders and Timbers rivalry is sure to be even more competitive this season, and wins in late October will be crucial if Seattle desires a home playoff advantage.

Western Conference Roundup: The West has the best teams in the league; from Seattle to Portland, to Dallas, to LA, this conference will most likely house the 2012 MLS Cup Champion. The mysterious storyline is who will be at the top challenging the northwest clubs, LA Galaxy, and FC Dallas? Colorado and Salt Lake are aging teams but still potential threats, while Chivas, Vancouver, and San Jose are uprising teams seeking a playoff spot. It should be an exciting season in the West, with the top-tier clubs driving the potential for the league’s success.

How They Will End Up

1- LA Galaxy

2- Seattle Sounders

3- FC Dallas

4- Portland Timbers

5- Real Salt Lake

6- Vancouver Whitecaps

7- San Jose Earthquake

8- Chivas USA

9- Colorado Rapids

Wild Card: Portland over Salt Lake

Conference Semifinals: LA over Portland, Seattle over FC Dallas

Conference Finals: LA over Seattle